The social implications of a public health crisis are now becoming apparent. Social distancing, online home schooling, intimate weddings, work from home, online dating, video medical consultations, rise in OTT screenings are some of the ways in which our society is changing.
Some changes may be temporary like medical consults online, and big weddings may also see a comeback, however many changes like work from home may permanently affect work culture given how it has saved on commuting hours, office spaces etc. Another major change that is being less talked about but is surely establishing itself as a major lifestyle choice in the new normal is the rise in multigenerational living.
Multigenerational living, where two or more generations of the family, live together with fully or partially shared spaces, is on the rise.
This concept, often called the joint family system, albeit slightly different, is quite common in India and has both pros and cons. Its helps save costs or rents and childcare. It is expected to take care of aging parents and help younger people save. However it can be restrictive and even downright exploitative to women, especially when she is living with in laws. Research in India has indicated that joint family places restrictions on women’s decision making ability and mobility which limits their ability to take up paid work. Also often they end up working both outside and inside home. Sometimes these structures can be downright abusive and violent.
The rise of nuclear family structure has given women independence and ability to plan for their families and themselves. Couples living together in nuclear family are more likely to share work and have an equal partnership. They can make joint decisions on future, household, parenting, social life etc. With couples taking jobs in bigger cities and moving to live independently rise in nuclear families is happening around India. However with the pandemic, this trend might see a setback.
Already all over the world, even in developed countries, which treated individual independence and space and sacred, families are moving in or close together. Wall Street Journal reports, that while multigenerational living has been on the rise for some time, it will be accelerated by COVID. This is expected to help with child care and elderly care and allow working adults to work from home. WFH is also freeing people from commutes and thus moving further away to live in smaller towns with or near family is making sense.
India’s lockdown saw many urban working couples with or without children move back to smaller towns with their parents. Many had their parents move in with them. Many retained some independence by moving close to their parents if not in the same house. These arrangements were slightly different from traditional joint families in the sense that move was not always with men’s side of the family and many women moved closer to their parents instead. Women in these arrangements were not expected to fulfill some traditional role, rather they needed some support to manage responsibilities of office work, online schooling along with household chores.
Many young people have been forced to move back due to losses in jobs and business, which makes living in bigger cities untenable. Indeed income loss and rising costs with economic decline that accompanies the pandemic is further going to accelerate this trend. Young people are already struggling to save and are much less likely to own assets like house or car than the previous generations.
Such living arrangements can be advantageous in many ways. It can address the epidemic of loneliness and isolation that is affecting the elderly of India. It will give grandchildren love and attention of their grandparents. If sensitively managed it can allow women to focus on their careers and explore independent opportunities. It can allow younger families to save and plan for future. However such an arrangement has the potential for raising conflicts and making it harder for women and children. Instead of aiding women it may double their work load and take away their agency. Communication, some family democracy in decision making process, a fair arrangement of sharing workload and finances and respect of personal spaces, decisions and privacy can go a long way in making this work.